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Storylines to watch from UFC 278: Usman vs. Edwards 2 - A rematch six years in the making

Luke Rockhold returns to test himself opposite Paulo Costa in the co-main event of UFC 278

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It’s been over six years since Kamaru Usman and Leon Edwards first fought. A lot of things have changed since Usman defeated Edwards on the early prelims of a UFC on FOX card in December 2015. One thing that hasn’t changed is the 0 in the loss column of either fighter since Usman’s hand was raised in victory that night. The two face off in the main event of UFC 278. Usman’s UFC welterweight crown is at stake in the pay-per-view headlining contest.

In the evening’s co-main event, ex-UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold returns to the octagon for the first time in over three years to face former UFC middleweight title challenger Paulo Costa, who hasn’t competed since October 2021.

Ahead of the August 20, ESPN+ streaming pay-per-view event, I look at the storylines to follow on the PPV portion of the UFC 278 fight card, which streams on ESPN+ pay-per-view, following the ABC prelims and the early prelims on ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass.

Kamaru Usman vs. Leon Edwards 2

If you think Leon Edwards is going to get a second chance at the UFC welterweight title if he loses at UFC 278, I’m here to tell you that will not happen. Edwards could lose the most controversial of split decisions and he’s not getting a rematch if he fails to unseat Kamaru Usman on Saturday. No, Leon Edwards, who is 9-0-0-1 since he dropped a unanimous decision to Usman on the UFC on FOX 5 early prelims in 2015, is only getting this one opportunity. to win UFC gold.

Like his opponent, Usman is also unbeaten since these two last fought. His record stands at 13-0 since his first meeting with Edwards. Five of those wins have been in defense of the welterweight title he took from Tyron Woodley in 2019.

Neither of these men is the same fighter they were in 2015. The big question in this contest is which one has progressed more without suffering the backward step that often comes with age and facing top notch competition in, well, any sporting contest.

Oh, and if Usman loses, you can bet he’ll get a trilogy fight against Edwards — directly.

Paulo Costa vs. Luke Rockhold

Luke Rockhold is saying — and if we are to believe him, —doing — all the right things to prepare for his return to the UFC.

“You can’t be half in, half out and I’ve been that way over the last five years,” Rockhold told MMA Fighting in the lead up to UFC 278. “Ever since getting the title, I haven’t been there. I’m in now. I’m f****** ready. I’m solely here for this.”

“I feel f****** unbelievable,” Rockhold added. “I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life. Literally, I’ve devoted every last second, every last minute to training and recovery and just furthering myself to being the best I can be.

“I don’t go out. I don’t drink. I haven’t drank in over four months. I haven’t had a f****** drink of alcohol. Not saying I had a problem but I just don’t have the urge to go out and do these things. I’m single-track focused to doing whatever the f*** I need to do to be better every f****** day.”

That’s all well and good, but Rockhold hasn’t fought since July 2019 and he hasn’t won since 2017. He’s also 37 and has been knocked out in three of his past four outings.

I don’t doubt Rockhold’s sincerity and dedication, but MMA is an unforgiving endeavor. It’s a sport that doesn’t care that you are a former UFC champion or if you’re more dedicated than your opponent or even more well prepared and athletic than the person you’re facing.

Rockhold is testing himself in a big way against former middleweight title challenger Paulo Costa, who has knocked out 11 of his previous opponents.

Jose Aldo vs. Merab Dvalishvili

Has Jose Aldo gotten old? That’s the question begging to be answered at UFC 278. Those who wrote off Aldo during — or after — his (very) rough stretch between December 2015 and July 2020, have had to hold their tongues as the former featherweight champ has found new life at 35 in the bantamweight division. What’s remarkable about Aldo is that he has been fighting the best of the best since 2009, when he defeated Cub Swanson in the WEC featherweight title eliminator. In a sport that eats its own, Aldo has managed to have a second act that few expected.

Merab Dvalishvili, who made his professional MMA debut after Aldo had defended the UFC featherweight title five times and the WEC title twice, has the chance to end Aldo’s fairytale second act. That’s a big ask, but the opportunity is there for him and he is coming off the biggest win of his MMA career.

Marcin Tybura vs. Alexander Romanov

According to UFC commentator Jon Anik, Alexander Romanov entered his UFC Vegas 53 matchup against Chase Sherman as the biggest betting favorite in UFC history. Romanov, who was unranked and unbeaten (15-0) heading into that clash, was a -2200 favorite over Sherman, who checked in as the +1100 underdog.

The bout was Romanov’s fifth with the UFC. Romanov, who had also been a favorite in each of his previous trips to the UFC octagon, scored his fifth UFC stoppage in that contest. With the win, the 31-year-old Romanov broke into the official UFC heavyweight rankings.

For his first fight as a ranked fighter, the UFC booked the No. 13 ranked Romanov opposite the No. 11 ranked Marcin Tybura. Romanov isn’t as big a favorite in this scrap as he was in his previous outing, but at better than 4-1 odds, he is one of the biggest betting favorites on the UFC 278 fight card.

Like the Tyson Pedro vs. Harry Hunsucker fight, which I discuss below, this booking feels like the UFC wants to give Romanov a winnable fight against a ranked opponent.

Tybura, who was on a five-fight winning streak before he dropped a decision to Alexander Volkov in October, has the opportunity to play the spoiler in this fight, but I don’t think he has the skills to overcome the confidence and complete game of his opponent in this engagement.

What fans want to watch here is if Tybura can force Romanov to engage in a striking battle. Frankly, that’s the only chance Tybura has in this matchup as Romanov’s wrestling skills are overwhelming.

Tyson Pedro vs. Harry Hunsucker

The UFC matchmakers seem to have a soft spot for Tyson Pedro. The 30-year-old returned to action in April after three surgeries and over three years outside the octagon. In his return bout, Pedro, who was 1-3 in his previous four outings and riding a two-fight losing skid, was a massive -630 favorite over Ike Villanueva. Pedro made quick work of Villanueva, who was 1-4 and also riding a two-fight losing skid.

I understand that matchmaking — to a point. The promotion has a young fighter in Pedro, who could be a promotable competitor in a market outside North America (Australia). With that in mind, the UFC gave him a bit of a soft landing in his return to the cage. What I don’t understand is why Pedro is getting another favorable matchup here. Pedro is an 8-1 favorite over Harry Hunsucker at UFC 278.

Hunsucker is coming off first-round knockout losses to Tai Tuivasa and Justin Tafa, who are both coincidentally, also Australian fighters. All five of Hunsucker’s career losses have come via first-round knockout.

This fight feels like it was designed to get Pedro another knockout win and then put him back in the light heavyweight mix. If that happens, it perhaps sets him up to land on the main card of a potential UFC Australia card in 2023.

The UFC has set Pedro up for success, but MMA is a fickle beast. We’ll find out on Saturday if he can deliver.